In the waning glow of the setting sun, with photographic gear in tow, we take a journey to the top of Near Trapps via the Millbrook Ridge Trail, to face east over the cliffs, toward the rising Harvest Moon.
The Millbrook Ridge Trail, only a few paces from the south end of Trapps Bridge, is immediately, but not unnecessarily aggressive in its incline. The relatively short Near Trapps ascent is both interesting and challenging by virtue of conglomerate platforms sliding across the footpath with abrupt disjointed edges and tenacious pitch-pine roots.
The path is not so much thereby revealed and demarcated by its surrounding contours as it is confronted— confronted by oblique blocks, fractures, and conglomerate platforms that converge to drop a rugged terrain underfoot. In contrast to the more massive but blind power that our thighs and buttocks normally push forth to address a steep incline, the trail calls for a physical response concentrated below the knees. Freedom at the ankles must be restricted by a combination of stabilizing joint structures and reactive vision. If the connective apparatus is not stabilized with this controlled tension, the trek is sure to end in injury. Angular rocks, clumsy steps, and misplaced roots rapidly give way to steeply inclined glacier-polished conglomerate, where the body’s tension continues to concentrate downward until it gives itself entirely to the friction of footwear. Treading is disclosed through either fortitude or failure. There are few shades of gray between fortitude and failure— either your grip is up to the task and your pace remains somewhat automatic— or you slip. If your tread fails, you proceed in an overly conscious manner. Despite the challenge, motivation pulls you forward as the intervening terrain works as a kind of guidewire for deliberation. If footwear had been considered unimportant, the condition can be witnessed in a striking fashion as individuals are observed descending back down the blue-blazed Millbrook Ridge Trail that we ascend. The challenge is written in their concentrated conformation, their downward gaze, and the overly cautious pace of their descent. Still, however, the internal countenance of those same individuals often basks not in frustration or fear, but in the afterglow of a unique Gunks outing.
As introduced in Philosopher’s Stone, the warped and tilted nature of the exposed conglomerate is the byproduct of a series of dramatic ancient mountain building episodes, but the abstract drama of geological events has left a palpably direct experience that is still offered to us today.
As we ascend the tilted conglomerate strata and gain contact with it, we engage a direct experience with ancient events whose residue is still with us. We may imagine, therefore, not only a solid connection to abstract principles that speak of incredible geological drama, but the sheer facticity of our ranging upon the remnants of that activity grants to that past a reality far more solid in the literal sense of the term, then the seemingly abstract timeframe of geology. Even as we perceptually range upon the terrain, we know. We know that these geological events occurred in the nearly timeless past— and so geologic time, through the rock itself, begins to transform its state from a mere harbinger of past events, to a congealed latency of real time: enduring time— hardened, harboring, re-enacting lived time as we engage its solidity. We no longer simply think duration as conceptual time— as a mere signifier or signpost of a possible experiences as if we were present at various intervals— instead, we directly perceive the kind of enduring for which we now lie at the leading edge of its extended momentum. The rock will endure, but right now it pushes back against our moving mass not just with supporting solidity, but with a kind of capped hardness sealed over that gritty solidity. It’s all right there, not in the abstract thought, but in the contact with the intriguing angular slabs of conglomerate that are enduring in the active sense of the term. The rock’s mass acts counter to our own particular equilibrium of forces pushing against it for stable movement. It requires us, with secret knowledge, to align ourselves with its time. Just yesterday, mile-high glaciers polished up, scared, and ‘chattered up’ its surface. We know that, even as we work to navigate a trail that often banks in the opposite pitch to our slow arcing ascent, making us overcompensate the banking to seek a more comfortable equilibrium. We unconsciously lean to counter its lean. Always there is a two-sided dialogue in the tension of friction.
The trail remains tucked between the open conglomerate and pitch pine thickets that drop off into mysterious shadows. The drop imparts a trajectory that increasingly seeks to pull us off the trail to the south, where broader platforms of exposed conglomerate advertise themselves as more welcoming. Out there, on the open rock, there is no blurred border in the same manner that we now feel as we ascend adjacent to a nondescript pocket of shadows whose volume suggests depth.
The trail’s blue blazing remains at the ready to keep us inline nonetheless. Without the markings, we are sure to migrate toward the open rock surfaces, where we are led, like Frodo and his companions, further and further off the main trail. It feels too right over there. The light conglomerate simply glows its expansive grounding, and the twisted forms of dwarfed pines reach their natural state of bonsai refinement upon it. Every form appears as if placed upon an independent surface in a sculptured radius around, providing room and respite for the senses, even while disclosing the next island of hardy refinement to migrate toward. This occurs in all phases of lighting, but it is particularly evident when the light is waning and the shadows are not yet deep enough to swallow the environment in a seemingly global night.
In the Gunks, even twilight remains aglow in both air and rock, for the broad conglomerate has its own means to re-radiate the luminance it has absorbed throughout the day— though no scientific apparatus can detect that subtle luminance to the same degree that we simply feel. For good reason, we must stay true to the trail’s course. It is all too easy to misjudge our trajectory to the top. More importantly, we are in a high traffic area of the ridge, and it is imperative that we think not of our own comfort, but of the well-being of this unique ecosystem.
CAPTURE & RELEASE
It is only a few hundred paces to crest the back side of Near Trapps. A series of compelling but false summits provide intrigue before our first destination is reached. In many Gunks’ journeys, the goal may appear to be a decisive summit, but what is granted is often far more interesting to experience, though less interesting to attempt to photograph or capture visually. Even at the edge of many cliffs, the Gunks often retain their capacity to thrust into the vicinity a welcome locale to anchor the body as vision continues its journey of projecting into the distant horizon. But no optical lens can match the attentive human perceptual apparatus and its capacity to apprehend the local and the distal environment at the same time. To be sure, there are many iconic vantages that are photographed or filmed from the Gunks. This series, of course, provides a large volume of accompanying images. But images are a different thing altogether than a ‘capture’ or ‘copy’ of sensation. Even sensation is an active and constructive process— a selective transduction— and not merely the recovery or shunting of a distal reality said to be complete prior to streaming through the open portals of the senses.
Photography is not, therefore, a second-order recording of that sensation, just as that sensation is not a second-order recording of that reality. It is a novel project— a new process of apprehension with its own defining characteristics, though capable of bringing us back referentially to the visual component of our experience with high fidelity, or invoking a new experience; one that is independent of the original momentum of real duration that sense perception takes part in enacting on our behalf. As modern perceptual neuroscience has disclosed, the organic visual apparatus does not simply record or detect distal wavelengths, though that is a quite popular and ‘techy’ interpretation. Instead, through infusion with the other sensory and motor processes, perception is the achievement that assists in the selective stabilization of primary attributes— of objects and environments capable of being attended in a decidedly human experience of relevance. Objects are not merely ‘detected’ complete— they are brought to fruition as embedded features of situations. Even as their non-conscious precursor elements guide perceptual construction by means of distal patterning, all is relationally contextual— all is selectively taken up in a human style of momentum that is stabilized by relevance. These novel, but naïve and buried roots of experience sometimes require the advent of a heightened sense of agency through which we assert ourselves when volition and choice are required and attention is deployed. But in the end, there is no secondary ‘capture’ going on— we attend to a subset of what our bodies have already selectively and pre-consciously assisted in stabilizing as a completed perceptual situation. That situation has an open-ended momentum addressed to novel actions in select cases— precisely those we deem conscious.
Sensation and the photographic image thus share one characteristic in common: they each are the renewed inflexion or emphasis-points— a new set of momentum-building starting-points for perception— not the ‘original datum’ that must be copied for a tacit witness. Primary perceptual processes cycle onward into the rich unfolding of novel situations, even when purely functional or pragmatic. That cycling is more akin to tapping into a reservoir of energy and potential than it is a wholesale reproduction.